“The military calls it a ‘force multiplier’…that’s what business aircraft have been for FedEx. ”
Airbus Helicopters' EC155B1
Here's why the model sold poorly—and why you might want to buy it.
It is one of the most famous lines in movie history. In the 1954 film On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando’s character bemoans falling short of his potential: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender,” he laments. If Airbus Helicopters’ EC155B and its updated B1 derivative could talk, they might say the same. (Eurocopter changed its name to Airbus Helicopters on January 8.)
These medium twin helicopters are based on the proven technology of the AS365 Dauphin. That model dates back to the 1970s, and a version of it is the backbone of the U.S. Coast Guard’s HH-65
“Dolphin” rescue fleet. The five-ton EC155 was intended to build on that tradition, adding improved engines and systems, a larger cabin and a slicker fuselage. When introduced in 1999, it was supposed to take the U.S. market by storm, deposing the Sikorsky S-76 as the preferred ride for the Wall Street set and gaining such acceptance in the offshore oil industry that the upcoming AgustaWestland AW139 would be pushed back into its Italian hangar. It did neither.
Granted, it attracted two high-profile owners—former New York Daily News publisher Fred Drasner and Wayne Huizenga, the once majority owner of the Miami Dolphins football team who made a fortune in garbage collection and with Blockbuster video stores. For the most part, though, the EC155 never caught on with U.S. executives. Nor did it do well in the Gulf of Mexico, where its larger cabin should have helped it outshine the S-76. The model did sell better in Europe, but many of those sales were subsidized in one form or another. (Eurocopter/Airbus Helicopters is owned by EADS, which until recently was controlled by the French and German governments.) For example, the German Federal Police ordered 20. Using an EC155 for police work is like entering an aircraft carrier in a bass-fishing tournament.
Through the end of 2012, only 147 EC155s had been made, which begs the question, why?
It’s not as if the company doesn’t know its trade; it has produced some great and popular helicopters over the years, including single-engine models such as the AS350 AStar series and EC130 and market-leading twins such as the EC135 and EC145. So what happened?
One problem may have been reticence on the part of operators to trust the manufacturer’s traditionally market-lagging product support (see chart). Also, I talked to several pilots who flew early EC155s and, while they praised its smooth flying characteristics and jet-like ride, they faulted it for a distinct lack of execution, citing reliability issues and insufficient engine power. The components that worked so well on the Dauphin failed regularly on the EC155. Problems surfaced with the electrical, air-conditioning and autopilot systems and the original engines made pilots nervous in certain situations, including landing and taking off in tight spots, loss of one engine and hover at higher elevations or hot temperatures.
Eurocopter took this feedback into account and in 2002 released an improved variant, the EC155B1, with more engine power and improved systems. However, the EC155’s popularity continues to be retarded by the fact that its direct operating costs exceed those of the Sikorsky S-76 and Bell 430, which both come in at around $1,000 an hour. A 2003 EC155B1 has an hourly direct operating cost of about $1,700, according to the consulting firm Conklin & de Decker. Increased fuel burn accounts for a small part of that; the EC155 drinks 95 gallons an hour compared with 88 for both the Sikorsky and the Bell. Higher components costs account for much of the rest.
While maintenance access is considered easier on the EC155 than on the S-76 or Bell 430, the helicopter does require a minor periodic inspection every seven days or 15 flight hours. So basically, this rotorcraft needs to live with, or close to, a mechanic. That 7/15 inspection is not odious, says Bryan Clay, rotary-wing maintenance manager for Michigan-based Pentastar Aviation, which manages and maintains three air-ambulance EC155B1s for the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) Survival Flight program. UMHS started taking delivery of its 155s in 2012 and already has put more than 600 flight hours on each one. Another 155 will soon be flying medevac for the ShandsCair program in Florida.
“It’s been a really good aircraft and we haven’t run into anything that has been a major problem,” Clay says, noting that the anomalies encountered have been minor and not consistent across all three aircraft. He calls the performance of the 155s’ Turbomeca Arriel 2C2 engines (935 shaft horsepower each) “solid.” And they warm up quickly—going from light up to liftoff can take as little as 30 seconds.
The reasons why UMHS chose the 155 are instructive: bigger cabin, more range. With the 155, UMHS can accept missions as far as 350 nautical miles away without refueling and carry pilot, patient and five medical professionals in the back; and the helicopters are equipped to fly single-pilot in instrument conditions. With a typical cruise speed of 151 knots, moreover, the EC155 can make those trips much more quickly. Eurocopter also agreed to provide the program with a substantial parts cache on consignment. The manufacturer offers mechanic training on the EC155 at its Grand Prairie, Texas campus. Pilots who want instruction with a full-motion, Level-D simulator for this aircraft need to go to HeliSim in Marseilles, France.
For an aircraft in this category, the flat-floor passenger cabin is massive—235 cubic feet plus more luggage room (88 cubic feet) than you’ll find in some midsize jets. In utility configuration, there is space for 13 passengers; nicely appointed in executive configuration, the model offers comfortable seating for five to nine. Because of its comparatively small rotor disc diameter of 41.3 feet—smaller than that of the S-76 or AW139—the EC155 is ideally suited for insertion into tight spaces, such as the decks of super-yachts. In fact, noted aircraft interior designer Andrew Winch created a special EC155 cabin for this purpose and Huizenga was known to have his land on the helideck of his 228-foot yacht, The Floridian.
On or off the water, the EC155 is a good neighbor with a low external-noise signature, thanks in part to its five-bladed main rotor and Fenestron-shrouded tail rotor. Inside the cabin, things can be a little loud without the right noise-dampening insulation.
You can outfit the cockpit with the latest avionics, including those that provide for precision GPS approaches to airports, heliports or points in space. The revised autopilot, while an improvement, can still be temperamental if not treated with care. The price of a new EC155B1 with an executive cabin can easily approach $15 million; however, you can buy a 10-year-old one with fresh interior and avionics for less than $6 million. (If you want a project, you can pay millions less.)
For what you get, that’s not a bad deal. Like Brando’s character at the end of On the Waterfront, the EC155 redeems itself. For the right owner, the B1 might still be a contender.
Mark Huber is a private pilot with experience in single-engine, multi-engine, turbine, amphibious, aerobatic and rotary-wing aircraft.
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